Boston could get 200+ liquor licenses after House passes bill

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Boston’s liquor licenses have been capped by the state due to a law from the 1930s.

The House approved a bill that would add more than 200 liquor licenses in Boston, especially to underserved neighborhoods. Barry Chin/Boston Globe

A measure to add liquor licenses to Boston’s most underserved communities moved forward in the House on Thursday almost a year after the legislation was brought to Beacon Hill by Boston officials and residents.

Lawmakers approved a total of 205 licenses — a slight dip from the 250 the original bills sponsored by state Rep. Christopher Worrell and state Sen. Liz Miranda requested in 2023.

Broken down, the 205 additional licenses includes 180 licenses for 12 zip codes in Boston — Roxbury, Roslindale, Mattapan, Hyde Park, West Roxbury, East Boston, Dorchester, Charlestown, and Jamaica Plain — as well as 15 for nonprofits and three licenses for establishments in Brighton’s Oak Square neighborhood. There are also seven unrestricted liquor licenses.

Five licenses per zip code will be doled over three years. Those five licenses include three full liquor licenses and two wine and malt-only licenses, a win for neighborhoods where there are sometimes only a handful of liquor licenses available.

Initially, supporters called for 250 licenses to be spread out across Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, East Boston, Roslindale, West Roxbury, and Hyde Park — five licenses per year for each neighborhood over five years. 

These neighborhoods were chosen because of a huge disparity that exists between them and other parts of Boston, like Back Bay and the Seaport, which have anywhere from 60 to 90 liquor licenses just in one neighborhood. These zip codes also contain a majority of residents who make below Boston’s median household income, most have a majority-minority population, and a significant number of residents are immigrants.

Some of the tweaks to the bill that passed in the House included adding Jamaica Plain and Charlestown to the list of zip codes, and Brighton’s Oak Square to get three licenses one time. The Boston Globe reports that some lawmakers were concerned about too many licenses ending up in the hands of only bars, which is why they set aside 15 licenses for “community spaces, including outdoor spaces, theaters and other non-profit organizations in the city of Boston,” according to the bill.

The 198 licenses — which includes those for the zip codes over three years, the three for Brighton, and the 15 for nonprofits and community spaces — are non-transferable, meaning the licenses can’t be sold on the private market and must return to the city. 

A major change made to this bill was to the final seven licenses, which are unrestricted. That means they can be used in any neighborhood and are transferable and can be sold on the private market, likely for hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

The reason lawmakers have to go to the Statehouse to add liquor licenses to Boston is because of a law that dates back to 1933, which capped the city’s available liquor licenses to under 1,000. Only in the last couple of decades and after much politicking have new licenses been added to the cap. Now, the number of on-premise licenses for restaurants and bars may be closer to 1,100.

The restriction on licenses means there are rarely liquor licenses available at City Hall for those restaurants and bars that get approved. So businesses often have to turn to the private market to buy a transferable liquor license from another business, which can go for up to $600,000. 

Despite the addition of the unrestricted licenses to this bill, which adds to the already oversaturated market of pricey and unattainable licenses in Boston, the Globe reports that lawmakers and Mayor Michelle Wu’s office seemed pleased with this first passage of the bill.

“This legislation will be transformative in creating economic opportunity in Boston’s communities of color and providing amenities in underserved neighborhoods,” Worrell said.

The bill now faces the Senate, where it must pass before ending up on Gov. Maura Healey’s desk for signature. Healey had earlier voiced support for local control of liquor licenses and had even included in her administration’s Municipal Empowerment Act local governments the freedom to decide their own cap. But in the end it was scrapped from the bill in late January. 

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